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COLLEGE BASEBALL / GARY KLEIN : It Has Taken Some Time, but USC Is Ranked No. 1 Again

March 26, 1994|GARY KLEIN

It took almost three years, but USC has finally returned to the top of the college baseball rankings.

The Trojans will start today's Pacific 10 Conference Southern Division series opener against UCLA ranked No. 1 by Baseball America for the first time since May 6, 1991.

USC is 22-6 overall and 8-4 in conference play. Last weekend, the Trojans won two of three against Stanford, the first time since 1981 that USC has won a series at Palo Alto.

First-place USC, which has won 13 of its last 14 games, has a half-game lead over California in conference play.

"Being ranked No. 1 is not going to bother us because teams are always out to get us anyway," said senior infielder Lionel Hastings, who was seven for 13 with a home run and five runs batted in against Stanford. "That's just part of playing at USC."

Aaron Boone began the week batting .384 and Walter Dawkins had hit nine home runs for the Trojans, who feature one of the nations's best offensive lineups. The key to the Trojans' success, however, has been a pitching staff that has compiled a 3.16 earned-run average. Freshman Randy Flores, a left-hander, is 4-0 with a 1.46 ERA.

"He's shown a lot of moxie for a freshman," Coach Mike Gillespie said. "He's not intimidated by any situation."

USC is hoping to ride its No. 1 ranking to a division title, a regional championship and its first trip to Omaha for the College World Series since 1978.

The Trojans will try not to stumble this weekend in the three-game series that ends Monday. UCLA is 6-17 overall and 2-4 in the conference.

"They've scuffled in a big way," Gillespie said of the Bruins. "But they're most definitely going to win some big games and ruin someone's season."

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Trivia time: If former Wichita State right-hander Darren Dreifort makes the Dodgers' opening-day roster, he will be the third player from the 1993 draft to break into the major leagues. Who were the first two?

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Welcome to L.A.: Sixth-ranked Wichita State completed its first regular-season visit to the Southland since 1983 Wednesday at Cal State Fullerton, and Shocker Coach Gene Stephenson sounds as if he won't mind leaving the area.

"I asked our driver how long it would take to get from our hotel in Costa Mesa to Cal State Fullerton (in the late afternoon)," Stephenson said. "He told me, 'It could be 40 minutes or it could be gridlock.' I said, 'Gridlock? What's gridlock?' We don't have gridlock in Wichita."

What the Shockers have, despite having lost twice to Fullerton, is a team that appears capable of reaching the College World Series. Wichita State (11-7) won two of three against 14th-ranked Long Beach State before the Fullerton series.

Stephenson, in his 17th season at Wichita State, has built his program into one of the nation's best. The Shockers, national champions in 1989, regularly draw crowds of 5,000. Stephenson has popular radio and television shows. Even pitching coach Brad Kemnitz has a radio show.

Next year, Long Beach and Fullerton will visit Wichita.

"We do enjoy coming out here," Stephenson said. "As long as the people we play return the favor."

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Got your number: Pepperdine's 2-1 victory over Fullerton last week was the Waves' eighth in a row over the Titans, a streak that dates to 1990 and includes the 1992 national championship game.

"I can't explain it," Pepperdine Coach Andy Lopez said. "I wouldn't even know where to start."

Pepperdine (15-11) completes an important three-game West Coast Conference series today against first-place Santa Clara, which began the week 17-9 overall and 8-1 in conference play. The Broncos have not won a conference title since 1978.

Today, Fullerton (21-5) continues its opening Big West Conference series at San Jose State. Long Beach (17-6) is at Nevada, and UC Santa Barbara (9-18) is at New Mexico State in other Big West openers.

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Trivia answer: Left-hander Brian Anderson of the Angels, the No. 3 pick overall from Wright State in Ohio, and left-hander Jeff Granger of the Kansas City Royals, the fifth pick overall from Texas A&M.

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Howard's end: Cal State Northridge outfielder Kevin Howard began the weekend having hit four homers in his last six games.

The run started two weeks ago when he hit a grand slam in a comeback victory over Hawaii to help the Matadors complete a Western Athletic Conference series sweep. Howard was one for 11 in the series before his homer.

Howard hit for the cycle and added an additional homer in a nonconference victory over Hartford, then homered against Cal State Sacramento last weekend. The Matadors (15-13) are playing host to Fresno State this weekend.

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